Archive for January, 2010

How to look for “you earn your reputation by trying to do hard things well” in a candidate

January 24, 2010 2 comments

Every growing software company can remember the time when the software engineering team consisted of a few, phenomenal software engineers who were well-rounded superstars with “failure is not an option” perspective.

Then came success:  revenue growth, profits, new customers with different needs, escalating pressure to deliver new releases faster than the closest competitor, urgent calls from the sales team to incorporate new functionality.

Then came our challenge:  grow the software engineering team – but without its size becoming an inhibitor.

How do you identify software engineering candidates that can  join the team, quickly assimilate, and help maintain the same product development velocity and code quality?

Is there a unique quality in a candidate that can hopefully serve as a predictor of success, i.e. someone joining a high growth organization and becoming the next superstar?

Is there an approach to identify this quality?

The answer to both is yes.

This quality can be best illustrated by what Jeff Bezos – founder and CEO of – said, “You earn reputation by trying to do hard things well”.

The approach is simple yet effective:  structure the interview process to determine what the candidate knows and does not know.

Last year, I was able to find – with help of a great recruiter – one candidate who became the next superstar.   The following interview process was very helpful:

1.  First phone screen:  after introductions, learn about specific accomplishments.  Take notes.

2. Second phone screen:  the second phone screen should be very technical.   Focus on the accomplishments the candidate mentioned during the first phone screen.  Ask him / her to explain technical terms, concepts, and techniques within the context of these accomplishments.

3.  Onsite interview A:  this is a team interview with 3-4 people present + the candidate.  Describe a real problem that the team is facing today.   The problem should be familiar to the candidate, perhaps one of the accomplishments mentioned during earlier discussions.  You want to see how the candidate …

– Draws upon prior experience

– Structures one or more solution options

– Proposes and defends one specific approach, while considering risks, timelines, testing complexity

– Interacts with the team and considers other points of view

4.  Onsite interview B:  again – this is a team interview with the same people.  However, the goal is very different.  Describe another, real problem that the team is facing today, knowing well in advance the candidate has very few chances of solving it during the interview.   You want to see how the candidate …

– Deals with uncertainty fueled by lack of experience and lack of knowledge

– Begins to look for answers although being in a very unfamiliar territory

– Engages with the team while being very uncomfortable and uses the team as one of the sources of strength

If the candidate has this quality – “You earn reputation by trying to do hard things well”, it will be easily seen at this point.


How to get rid of “just enough not to get fired” culture

January 10, 2010 4 comments

I’ve known this particular client – a growing software company – for a long time. Last year, the CEO called me and shared his concerns:

– “We are clearly falling behind the competition”

– “The software engineering team is working hard but every time we launch a new release the competition is still ahead of us”

– “The sales team is also working hard; yet the win-loss ratio suggests a different story”

I agreed to help.

After working with the software engineering team for a few weeks, several observations could be made.

– The product design was collectively owned by 4 very senior software engineers who have been with the company from day one. They were very valuable and knew it. Every 2 weeks, something failed and they became instant heros – yet again. Only these 4 individuals could find and correct certain defects.

– In addition to other issues, there were two glaring, urgent problems: lack of an open channel with sales and product management teams (competitive intelligence was rarely considered in the requirements planning cycle) and lack of an open transparent design process (important design considerations were rarely discussed).

It became clear that these 4 very senior software engineers did “just enough not to get fired” while being more interested in preserving the status quo than building a more competitive product.

They were gone after receiving very generous severance packages. The team did take one step backwards but rapidly accelerated after four – terrific – software engineers joined the team.

The recruiting process had a very important objective: attract and hire new team members that understood, believed in, and practiced the art of constructive confrontation, or an ability to confront tough problems in an open and constructive manner . It’s worth noting that constructive confrontation is not a new concept. Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, was instrumental in making constructive confrontation a key part of Intel’s culture.

Why is constructive confrontation so important?

Imagine a design meeting where a critical design change is being discussed by five senior software architects. Four people believe that Design Approach A is the right answer. One person disagrees and proposes Design Approach B.

Without the culture of constructive confrontation, the voice of one person would not be heard potentially creating the risk of a poor design decision.

The culture of “just enough not to get fired” could also be noticed in the sales organization of my client’s company. The CEO decided to recruit a new Vice President of Sales and I had a chance to interview 2 final candidates.

My only question to both was:

“When did you find yourself in the position to disagree for very critical reasons? Please share the details.”

Only one candidate responded with an answer that I thought was absolutely on target.

“When I was VP of Sales at Company X, my company was growing at an annual rate of 10% while our closest competitors grew at a rate of at least 18%. To fuel growth, a number of changes were needed, particularly in product engineering and marketing strategy. I continued to propose these changes at every executive team meeting”.

This candidate was not afraid of constructive confrontation. He cared about the company’s growth, survival, and ultimately the livelihood of all employees. He got the job and turned out to be one of the best hires.

Leadership 101; back to basics

January 5, 2010 2 comments

Two events prompted this blog entry.

First – I spoke to my former colleague last night.  “M” is a brilliant software engineer, working on a new feature that will be instantly behind the times at launch.  Competitors already have this capability for quite some time. “M”‘s company competes in a market, where “me too” software release does not influence the sales pipeline.

“Did you talk to your manager”, I asked.    “M” indicated that his manager is not a leader, capable of accepting and channeling accurate (painful) feedback.

This is not surprising.  CNN reported on January, 5, 2010 that US job satisfaction hit a 22-year low.  Poor leadership is undoubtedly one of the factors.  Leaders are tested even more so during stressful economic times.  Warren Buffet said it best in his letter to the shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. in 2001:  you only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out.

Second – Doyle Slayton posted a very interested question on Linkedin.

“What is the biggest problem with leadership? What is the solution?”

Doyle’s question could not be timed any better.

The biggest problem is that leaders forgot the fundamentals of leadership, i.e. what leader should be doing. And very few companies have implemented internal controls to ensure that great leaders remain and grow, while not-so-great leaders depart before doing more harm than good. The exceptions to the rule are companies that understand the risks of having poor leadership: Pfizer, PepsiCo – where I spent 7 years, GE, and many others.

Leaders plan, organize, control, and lead, where “lead” includes making decisions, motivating, and developing people (50% of one’s time in more senior roles). These are the four pillars of good management. Note that “lead” component is the last one and for a good reason.

“Plan”. One cannot lead an organization without a plan to achieve a set of goals. No amount of motivation can convince a team to pursue a poorly defined goal.

“Organize”.  One cannot lead an organization without an organizational structure that reinforces shared goals. Imagine a software company with a great engineering team but very weak sales team … or the other way around.

“Control”.  One cannot lead an organization without controls in place and metrics. Imagine a sales deal which may not be profitable due to excessive support costs over the deal lifetime. Good leader knows how to create an organizational structure and controls which will trigger a conversation to solve the problem – and quickly.

“Lead”.  Once “plan, organize, control” work in a transparent manner, then “lead” becomes the most important component: how to build and motivate the organization to achieve the goal.

I want to share a few thoughts about feedback, something that appears to lack in my former colleague’s company. It’s true – leaders have a tremendous responsibility to collect, distill, and the communicate feedback.

Good leader knows how to acknowledge feedback and inform the organization that a different course needs to be pursued in a transparent, direct manner. Yet it’s OK to disagree and make a difficult, yet balanced decision that can be understood by everyone.

Feedback can be very uncomfortable for some. One of the best leaders (and an exceedingly difficult person I ever worked for in the past) told me,

“Actively seek discomfort. When it’s really uncomfortable, you will never notice”.

“Make every loser feel like a winner and you will know what leaders do”.

Categories: Hiring, Side conversations